Mystery Shopper: Bass Pro shatters the no-service stereotype of big-box stores

SNEWS® set out to gauge how effectively outdoor retailers are selling GPS, and to make it even more interesting, we sent one of our top Mystery Shopper operatives to a large Bass Pro Shops store just north of Atlanta. Could a massive sporting goods store filled with everything from boat motors to tents effectively sell GPS? Our Mystery Shopper was surprised at what he found.
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SNEWS® headed into the Deep South in search of GPS knowledge. As we always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store -- or to praise one particular store or person -- but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, hopefully, offer a learning experience. Each and every shopping experience can be widely different, even at any one store or with any one person. Don't forget to visit our Training Center (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

Of all the products in your store, what would you say is perhaps one of the most complex ones to sell? There's a good chance you just said GPS. These sophisticated devices are very helpful for a broad range of outdoor uses, but many consumers don't understand how to use them. Because land navigation is complex and GPS units offer so many features, it can be very difficult for salespeople to explain GPS units in the same way they can comfortably run through the features of a tent or a stove in several minutes.

So, we set out to gauge how effectively a few outdoor retailers are selling GPS, and to make it even more interesting, we sent one of our top Mystery Shopper operatives, Grits, to a large Bass Pro Shops store just north of Atlanta. Could a massive sporting goods store filled with everything from boat motors to tents effectively sell GPS? Our Mystery Shopper was surprised at what he found.

Truth be told, in addition to his skill as an undercover operative, we also sent Grits into the land of hooks and bullets because he's a home-grown Southern boy and can both blend with and understand the locals -- essential for retaining good cover and surviving navigating through a massive Bass Pro Shop. At around 12:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, Grits approached the gargantuan Bass Pro Shops building, which looked like a cabin on steroids. After walking though the doors, he noticed an oversized fireplace to the right, complete with couches surrounding the hearth. He walked forward to a line of turnstiles (you know you're walking into a whopper of a store when the place has turnstiles).

It didn't take Grits long to feel like he'd just walked into a Disney version of the Backwoods South. Scattered about the massive facility were faux cabins and shacks and even a rocky waterfall. Grits let out a low whistle and said to himself, "Lawd have mercy. I bet this place has a Song of the South water ride."

He saw a sign for the camping section, and walked toward it, passing concept shops for clothing from The North Face and Columbia. For several minutes, he browsed the sprawling camping section, gazed up at the towering climbing wall, and searched every aisle for something that called out "GPS here." He was brought to a momentary, and somewhat stunned halt at the far left of the camping area. "Don't that beat all," he said, examining an arcade-style shooting gallery where you could fire a fake rifle at electronic targets for 50 cents.

Grits was impressed, but also concerned that he might never find the GPS section without…well…a GPS, or a map, or something. Persevering, and wishing he'd brought some supplies for what was turning into a store exploration expedition, he walked to the opposite side of the store and finally found what he was looking for in the marine section next to the boat motors and fishing poles.

In the glass display case built into the wood counter he saw about half a dozen Magellan GPS units, and to the left of these more than 20 Garmin units. Man, these guys were stocked! An employee with a nametag that read Ed soon walked over to Grits and asked if he could help him.

"Yes, sir, I'm interested in a GPS," said Grits. He had seen a large selection of GPS units for boats in the display case, so he thought he'd go ahead and qualify himself to speed things along. "I'll mostly use it for hiking," said Grits. "But I don't know much about them, and I'm not sure what to get."

Ed, a kind-looking man with a gray beard, leaned back against a support pillar and said, "Well, for what you need, there are basically two types," said Ed. "There's a basic kind that you can use to mark waypoints as you walk along, and it'll help you get back to any of those points." He pointed out that this type didn't have detailed maps, but would do just fine to help a person retrace their steps. "The second kind is a mapping GPS, and it has a map on the screen that will show you where you are on a trail, and where you are in relation to other things in the area -- natural features or buildings." He added that a mapping GPS would have roads on it, and told Grits he could also download topographic maps.

Hey, that's a great start, Grits thought -- a simple and easy-to-understand explanation of the basic GPS types. Grits stared at the large selection of Garmin units and said he wasn't really sure where to begin his search. At this point, Ed could have asked for a few more details about what kind of traveling Grits would be doing, but he chose instead to take another route. "Well, let's go through them," said Ed.

The models were arranged left to right, from lowest price to highest. Beside each unit was a small card calling out a few features, such as memory. Good stuff, thought Grits -- a clean, logical display with useful information.

Ed started on the left, and calmly -- but not too slowly -- went through two or three key features of at least 10 different models. He talked about things such as memory and explained that certain models, such as the Etrex Legend had "hard" memory, or built-in memory, while others, such as the Etrex Legend CX had a removable chip to allow greater storage.

Grits was impressed with Ed's detailed knowledge of each product. The salesman described the features from memory without having to read from literature or tags. He also liked the fact that, as Ed moved to a higher priced GPS, he would compare it to the previous one, and note the advantages. He said that things like screen quality improved as price points increased, and he noted that some units, such as the Vista had an electronic compass that would provide direction when standing still, while others, such as the Legend would only give you a bearing while moving.

While they were talking, another customer -- a man in his 30's -- walked up and began listening in. He asked Ed about mapping software for rivers and waterways, and Ed pointed out a large selection of mapping software under the counter. Ed told the customer that he could not only check out the store's inventory of software, but also investigate third-party companies, such as Delorme, to get maps of specific areas and probably save some money. Grits loved that the salesperson was not only offering the customer plenty of alternatives, but he was further displaying pretty comprehensive knowledge of all things GPS.

For Grits, signal strength was a common concern with GPS, especially when traveling through a thick canopy in the mountains of north Georgia. So, he wanted to see how Ed would approach the subject. Would he explain the difference between a patch antenna and a more powerful quad helix antenna, or take a less technical approach? After the other customer walked away, Grits pointed at the Garmin Legend 60CX, noted the finger-like projection at the top of the unit, and asked why that model looked different from the smaller units that lacked this feature.

Ed said that the antenna in the Legend 60CX was more accurate, but added that it was a jump up in price. While holding up the Legend 60CX, he said, "I can put this on this counter, and in five minutes I'll have a signal." He then raised the more basic Legend model and said, "I can put this on the counter, and I'll never get a signal." He noted that if I was going to be traveling in thick canopy, it might be worth it to go with the higher-priced model.

Hey, good enough, thought Grits. Ed effectively demonstrated the difference and made a good recommendation without getting too technical.

"So, when does a GPS really help?" asked Grits. "I mean, is it something you really need?”

"It's always something good to have," Ed replied. "If you get lost, all rescue personnel use GPS to find a person." While this was helpful information, Grits was hoping that Ed would add that a person should never rely solely on a GPS. He hoped Ed would alert him to the fact that batteries can fail, and electronics can never replace a map and compass and basic navigation skills.

To this point, Ed had not brought the Magellan products into the picture. So Grit asked Ed what he thought of Magellan compared to Garmin. "Which one's better?" Grits asked.

"Garmin," Ed said without hesitation.

"Why is it better?"

Ed turned up the palm of his left hand, extended his fingers and tugged on each digit as he counted off the advantages: screen quality, maps, aftermarket software, etc.

Grits appreciated Ed's honesty, and the fact that he could clearly spell out the advantages. He told Ed that he now had plenty to chew on, that he'd think it over and make a decision.

"Yeah, you should also go online to Garmin.com, and you'll get even more information there that will help you," Ed added.

Grits walked away very pleased that, in Ed, he'd found a salesperson with a wealth of knowledge. Also, he'd found a salesperson who could explain the products without overwhelming the customer. So many massive sporting goods stores fit the big-box stereotype in our past experience, offering lots of real estate but little in the way of quality, personal service. But this Bass Pro Shops store -- at least in the GPS section -- offered the service and selection to rival or exceed many specialty stores we've shopped in the last three years -- and that's saying something indeed.

SNEWS® View: Looks can be deceiving. A cavernous store with a shooting gallery and movie-lot set pieces might seem like a place focused on entertaining customers rather than serving them with high-quality information. But Bass Pro Shops had clearly devoted time to staffing its GPS department with employees not only schooled in products, but also in effective selling. Ed took a very logical, step-by-step approach in explaining the differences between various units, and he highlighted key features that would help Grits make a decision. Perhaps the salesman could have asked a few more questions to determine whether Grits should buy a very basic model or a mapping one, but Grits felt in the end that Ed would have matched him with something appropriate for his needs. If our Mystery Shopper had any criticism, it was that Ed should have asked more about his knowledge of basic map and compass skills. He could have suggested that a GPS should complement a map and compass rather than serve as a substitution. And Grits had one other suggestion: Perhaps the store could place a sign in the camping section directing hikers to visit the marine section for GPS units. If the store really wants to cater to hikers, it should consider that they might first look for land navigation equipment in the camping department.

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